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COLD CREEK MANOR(director/producer/music: Mike Figgis; screenwriter: Richard Jeffries; cinematographer: Declan Quinn; editor: Dylan Tichenor; cast: Dennis Quaid (Cooper Tilson), Sharon Stone (Leah), Stephen Dorff (Dale Massie), Juliette Lewis (Ruby), Kristen Stewart (Kristen Tilsen), Christopher Plummer (Mr. Theodore Massie), Ryan Wilson (Jesse Tilson), Dana Eskelson (Sheriff Ferguson), Simon Reynolds (Ray Pinski), Shauna Black (Nurse Janice), Peter Outerbridge (Dave Miller); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Annie Stewart; Touchstone Pictures; 2003)
An uneven psychological thriller.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Mike Figgis (“Internal Affairs“/”Time Code“) comes up with an uneven psychological thriller. It’s really two films rolled into one. The uninteresting formulaic family-under-siege story that was shamelessly presented and a more involving character story of a yuppie Gotham couple in a family crisis. The suspense story is a fright-by-the-numbers tale that works too hard for its scares to be effective. It also turns out to be too predictable and clumsily conceived to be acceptable as a thriller, as its snake-induced fright in the house scene was much too tacky and its death scene of a favorite pony was unneeded. Much of the thrills felt like padding to please the genre expectations demanded for this mainstream B-movie. Those scare scenes mostly took away from the film’s rhythm and its more penetrating family drama story. It also helped make this film seem too long, as at least twenty minutes should have been cut in the editing room. But despite its plot development failings and poor pacing and ill-advised directing decisions, Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone do some marvelously subtle acting to take this weak Richard Jeffries script and lift it almost out of its heavy morass. The actors succeed in turning the film’s attention away from the hokey scary stuff and got me interested to see if they can right the ship to their salvageable marriage.

Cooper Tilson (Dennis Quaid) is a Manhattan-based “labor of love” documentary filmmaker, who is rushing through traffic to get his young adventurous son Jesse (Wilson) and cell phone toting adolescent daughter Kristen (Stewart) to their private school class on time. Corporate businesswoman mom Leah (Sharon Stone) is on a plane somewhere over the Midwest, where she’s told by her boss (Outerbridge) he’s promoting her to VP and then smoothly hits on her to stopover with him in the next town. The proposition doesn’t faze Leah as she looks upon it as just another business deal to consider, but things change when on her cell phone she learns Jesse is almost rundown by an errant car in traffic. That seems to be the last straw for city life, as the frazzled family plan to split from the rat race and hole up somewhere in quiet rural upstate New York.

Leah quits her power position in hopes of getting her values back in order, while Cooper hopes that he can reclaim his manhood. In their upstate search for the right house the aggressive family trespasses on a gait-locked property, but the local sheriff forgives them when she sees they’re respectable folks. For a meager $210,000, they purchase through a bank foreclosure this rundown 1,200-acre estate on a former sheep farm.

Soon the former owner, Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff), an unshaven and ruggedly handsome but menacing ex-con (he did a three-year jail sentence for manslaughter in a traffic accident), invites himself for dinner with the family and talks Cooper into hiring him to restore the red brick house and swimming pool. His logic is that no one knows the place better than he does.

All the signs of danger soon come into place with the hiring of the ever-present muscular Dale, who makes Cooper jealous prancing around the house shirtless as his wife eyes his sweaty bod with pleasurable looks. Figgis then tacks on a number of events that bring the film fully into its suspense genre through a list of hellish discoveries. Cooper learns from Dale that hanging on the wall he now uses for an office are a collection of “killing hammers.” They were used to slaughter the sheep, but Cooper notes one hammer is missing. The kids while playing in the woods discover a hidden deep well that seems mysterious, and have also found in the house the Massie children’s scrapbook of eerie rhymes. When Cooper learns that Dale’s father (Christopher Plummer) is in a nursing home, he pays him a surprise visit and learns from the babbling mean-spirited elderly man about some possible dark family secrets. Though he’s not sure of what to make of that, Cooper becomes more suspicious of Dale when he learns that his wife and two kids left him and have never been seen since. There’s also a later incident where Cooper witnesses Dale slug his low-rent waitress/gas attendant girlfriend Ruby (Lewis), and realizes this guy is a real danger.

It should come as no surprise to the viewer that Dale is deranged, hates city folks with every ounce of his blood, and will do terrible things to the family– which come in a long list of usual horror film shockers and builds to the eventual confrontational scene on a rainy night in the restored manse. The unimaginative ending, relying on action to replace words and ideas, was not one of the film’s better moments. It was the usual cheesy resolve for these type of multiplex flicks. But if one can overlook all the miscues, there’s a richly layered other film buried in the bigger film. In that film one has to digest how the documentary filmmaker is a natural snoop and violates unwritten laws of privacy even though he knows it is ethically wrong to do so, but nevertheless feels his independent-inspired career decisions and unwillingness to compromise his beliefs makes it all right. While the corporate wife has no illusions about her business ethics, but believes she has a good thing going with her family and now tries to get her head together to fit in as an old-fashioned type of housewife looking up to hubby as the family’s role model. This educated family has to fight their battle in the territory of the yokels (studios that make films for profit only, can easily be substituted for yokels), where the city slickers are looked upon as the invading enemy who must be fought. The battle raging between urban (those who are curious) and country lifestyles (those who are backward), forces Quaid to find his primitive nature in order to win one for the civilized family. The result is a nuanced character study that far exceeds the usual portrayals in such big studio films, but its cheap thrills should satisfy the studio honchos as Figgis leaves room for it to attract a big box office.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”